As the college basketball season reaches its midpoint, it's time to look at the surprise teams and the disappointments, the breakthrough players and the coaches who've turned their programs around, as well as those who find themselves on the hot seat.
Here's what we've seen so far:
Most surprising team: Nobody expected Auburn to still be unbeaten -- not even coach Cliff Ellis -- but the Tigers were picked among the contenders in the SEC West. Iowa was picked to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten, in part because of the lame-duck status of coach Tom Davis. But Dr. Tom, whose contract was not extended past this season, has watched guards Dean Oliver and Kent McCausland lead the Hawkeyes to a 13-1 record with 12 straight wins. At 4-0, they lead the Big Ten.
Most disappointing team: When you look at last year's NCAA tournament and where teams were expected to finish this season, few have failed to live up to expectations to the extent of Washington. A Sweet 16 team last season, Bob Bender had senior stars Donald Watts and Todd MacCulloch back. But Watts missed four games earlier this year with a sprained ankle and the Huskies haven't recovered. They're 0-3 in the Pac-10, with two losses coming at the buzzer.
Most surprising player: William Avery of Duke came out of Oak Hill with stellar credentials, and played well in spurts as a freshman last season behind Steve Wojciechowski. But who expected Avery to become such a dominant point guard as a sophomore? Sure, it helps to have players such as Elton Brand and Shane Battier to pass the ball to, but Avery could be the key to the Blue Devils making it to the Final Four this season.
Most disappointing player: Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves was a near consensus pick as the Big Ten's Player of the Year, but the 6-foot-2 junior guard has been slowed by injuries that haven't fully healed from last summer and teammates who have yet to pick up the slack. Cleaves has seen his scoring average drop from 16.1 to 11.4 points a game, mostly the result of shooting 42 percent from the field and 30.6 on threes. But there have been signs of him coming out of the early-season slumber -- against Michigan recently, he had 25 points on 7-for-10 shooting).
Best freshman: Erik Brown of Morehead State, Quentin Richardson of DePaul and B. B. Waldon of South Florida are putting up impressive numbers. Brown leads all freshmen at more than 20 points a game, with Richardson and Waldon both at 19.5, but neither is doing it doing it at a Top 25 program. Right now, it's a tossup between two Pac-10 freshmen, Michael Wright of Arizona and Jerome Moiso of UCLA.
Best junior-college transfer: Who else but Steve Francis, do you say? While the 6-3 guard has turned the Terrapins into the second-best team in the ACC and one of the best in the country, he has competition in this category from Cincinnati's Pete Mickeal, who has led the Bearcats to a 15-1 start. Another contender is Auburn's Chris Porter, who has helped the Tigers win their first 16 games. After a slow start, former Dunbar star Marvis "Bootsy" Thornton is starting to make an impact at St. John's.
Most surprising league: The Big Ten used to be overrated; now it's underrated. Iowa is the closest the league has to a Top 10 team -- the Hawkeyes started the week at No. 12 -- but Purdue, Michigan State, Minnesota, Indiana and Wisconsin are right behind. Ohio State is being revived by guards Scoonie Penn and Michael Redd and Northwestern -- yes, Northwestern -- is even showing signs of life under second-year coach Kevin O'Neil. The Big East is running a close second, with St. John's, Rutgers, Seton Hall and Providence all much improved.
Most disappointing league: If not for the Atlantic 10, it would probably be the ACC. In the A-10, the coaches will tell you, it's a case of over-scheduling, but Rhode Island's Jim Harrick said this week: "I think we're probably not as good." Harrick's team and Temple have been so depleted by graduation and injury that both teams are using assistant coaches to practice. The league started the year with four teams in the Top 25; now, there are none. Without Duke and Maryland, and possibly North Carolina, the ACC has a lot of mediocre teams masquerading as big-time programs.
Best game: Though only hoop insomniacs saw the finish of a game that ended around 2 a.m. in the East, Cincinnati's 77-75 win over Duke in the final of the Great Alaska Shootout on Nov. 28 would have made for a great NCAA championship game. The Bearcats nearly blew a 19-point lead before winning on a terrific play in which Ryan Fletcher threw a long inbounds pass to Kenyon Martin, who got the ball to a cutting Melvin Levett for a dunk. The Blue Devils almost tied the game, but Avery's 17-footer came after the buzzer. How about a rematch at Tropicana Field in the NCAA final March 29?
Best coaching change: Few outside Starkville, Miss., had heard of Rick Stansbury when he was promoted from assistant to head coach after Richard Williams resigned at Mississippi State last spring. Few still know who Stansbury is, but he has the Bulldogs off to a 12-5 start with many of the players he helped recruit.
Coach on the hot seat: After Eddie Fogler's team flamed out the last two years in the first round of the NCAA tournament, his star began to fade a bit at South Carolina. The Gamecocks were picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the SEC East, but nobody expected 0-4 and 5-10 overall after Wednesday night's 17-point loss to Florida at home.
Pub Date: 1/15/99